WASHINGTON – The CDC’s No. 2 official plans to retire this summer, marking the second high-profile departure this month as the Biden administration seeks to rebuild trust in the battered agency.
Anne Schuchat, principal deputy director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told senior agency leaders on Monday that she plans to retire after 33 years at the agency. Schuchat, who has been principal deputy director to four CDC directors and served as acting director several times, has played an integral role in the agency’s response to the pandemic and other high-profile public health emergencies.
Schuchat categorically denied reports of tensions with CDC Director Rochelle Walensky, saying in an exchange of text messages, “Whoever told you that has no idea of the close relationship we have. She is a wonderful leader, colleague and now friend. I cannot even imagine having tensions with her!”
Schuchat’s resignation closely follows the departure of longtime CDC official Nancy Messonnier, who left the agency Friday after she was replaced as head of CDC’s vaccine task force. Messonnier had played a key role in overseeing last year’s vaccine rollout and had drawn Trump’s ire after she publicly warned in February 2020 that the coronavirus outbreak would disrupt Americans’ lives – the first administration official to issue such an alert. Biden officials folded Messonnier’s vaccine task force into the agency’s broader operations this year.
Walensky confirmed Schuchat’s departure in a statement that expressed “enormous gratitude” for her leadership “during this very challenging period for our country.”
“Anne embodies selfless public service, the pinnacle of scientific and intellectual standards, and has given her heart to our agency and the public health community,” Walensky said. “I will remain forever grateful that our paths crossed, even for just a short while.”
Some officials worried about the effect of Schuchat’s departure on the morale of the agency’s approximately 13,000 employees, which includes staffers around the world, and more than 10,000 contractors. Morale is low after the agency faced unprecedented political pressure under the Trump administration, as well as outside criticism for its handling of the pandemic. Schuchat has been a stabilizing force.
When she ran the agency’s incident management response last year, she often sought to ease tensions by opening morning meetings with songs about the outbreak set to Broadway tunes. When she ran the agency’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, she wrote short poems that she included in otherwise-routine updates.
She is well regarded among her counterparts at federal and state health agencies and among members of Congress.
Schuchat, who disclosed her plans to retire during a midday meeting, had told friends since last year that she is exhausted and ready to leave. Walensky said at the meeting that she would share more information soon on the process for Schuchat’s replacement, according to a senior CDC official.
Walensky is also planning other new hires, according to individuals with direct knowledge of the personnel changes.
As the CDC’s top career official, Schuchat was targeted by Trump political appointees who said the agency’s scientists were working to undermine Trump before the 2020 presidential election. Some Trump officials said her May 2020 assessment of how the coronavirus spread across the United States was intended as a criticism of how the Trump administration had handled the outbreak. CDC officials disputed the allegation, but Schuchat’s public appearances were curtailed in the wake of the report.
Schuchat, who joined CDC as an epidemic intelligence service officer in 1988, took on high-priority assignments. In addition to working on the emergency response team that investigated anthrax-spore-laden envelopes sent to politicians after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, she played key roles during the 2003 SARS outbreak that started in China, the 2009 H1N1 swine flu epidemic, the 2014 West Africa Ebola epidemic, the 2016 Zika outbreak and the probe of vaping-related lung injuries in 2019. She is also a retired two-star rear admiral in the United States Public Health Service.
She served as acting director for six months in 2017 after Tom Frieden resigned from the post; before Brenda Fitzgerald was appointed and again before Robert Redfield was appointed in March 2018.
Schuchat also gained a measure of fame when Kate Winslet, who played a CDC epidemiologist in the 2011 film “Contagion,” modeled her character on Schuchat and spent time shadowing the longtime agency official to prepare for the role.
In a prepared statement, Schuchat said she hoped to find time in retirement “for creative passions” and was confident in the agency’s future.
“I will be leaving with the greatest respect and confidence in CDC’s leadership and staff, and the important work we do,” she said. “I could not be more optimistic about the future of our agency and the prospects for our public health system. After a long and fulfilling career in public health, infectious diseases, and epidemiology, it is the time for me to smell some roses.”